During his post-game press conference after the Duke Blue Devils defeated Maryland in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Mike Krzyzewski reflected back on the earlier road defeat to Miami. "Sometimes you just need to see the ball go in the basket," said the coach, in reference to the Blue Devils' weak offensive effort in the blowout loss to the league-leading Hurricanes.
While of course much of the game of basketball is physical, Coach K was reminding anyone who would listen that the mental aspects are just as important, especially as a long season grinds on. Let's face it: there have been zero seasons without any adversity. In the end, it is how a team adjusts to those tough times that tells the tale.
As usual, there is a lot of truth to what Coach K said, and the mental aspect of the game certainly played a part in the Blue Devils' early road woes, as they lost to N.C. State and Miami. It took Duke the whole game to put Wake Forest away, before getting out of Winston-Salem with the win. And just like seeing the ball fall helps a player get it going on offense, breaking through with that first road victory can be a a big confidence builder for an entire team.
Fast forward to Florida State. This was a matchup that had more than a few nervous, especially considering the recent success the Noles have enjoyed against Duke. A sold-out arena once again awaited the Blue Devils, and there were surely many who quite reasonably believed that this Duke team was beatable without the services of injured senior Ryan Kelly. They were undoubtedly rubbing their hands together at the thought of how they'd rush the court if their team were to pull the upset -- and it seemed like they would have a reasonable chance to do so.
But Duke had other ideas. They roared out to an 11-0 lead before the ushers could return to their seats after the national anthem. Duke came out focused on the job at hand -- and one could just sense that the road win over Wake Forest had gotten this team over the hump, paying big dividends in terms of the team's confidence.
Everything worked well for the Blue Devils today. Krzyzewski played his bench for extended minutes, including spelling Mason Plumlee for big minutes in the first half after he picked up his second foul. The Blue Devils' guards were as good as they've been all season, combining for 54 total points in the lopsided 79-60 win. And the Duke defense? It was hard for the Noles to find open looks; team leader Micheal Snaer went 3-13 from the field, totalling a paltry 7 points.
What you are seeing is a team finally adjusting to the absence of Kelly, and settling into their redefined roles. Everyone expected that it would be so easy to do that, because it's Duke, but the reality is that any team, and any coaching staff, would need time to re-calibrate after losing such a critical player and leader as Kelly.
In fact, having the league's longest tenured staff has eased the transition, or it would have taken even longer. But I must go back and emphasize the mental aspect. Just seeing a little success, like the ball going though the basket or getting that first road win, has been a huge factor in righting the ship.
Rough waters for that ship may be on the horizon again, though, as N.C. State invades Cameron this week. It was just over two weeks ago, remember, that the Wolfpack knocked the Blue Devils from the ranks of the unbeaten and from their perch atop the national rankings in Duke's first game without Kelly. The question is: can Duke keep its positive momentum going with a win over a quality team, and restore its confidence further as they move forward in a season where there still will be more ebbs and flows.